Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Tag: Inspiration

LOOKING FOR THE ORIGINS OF A MEDITATIVE PRACTICE

One of my ongoing questions about Quaker practice is just how early Friends came to discover – or rediscover – a form of meditative practice while so far removed from Asian spiritual traditions.

Early Quaker worship, let’s be certain, was often quite different from the silence-based hour many contemporary Friends claim. Women and children, especially, often released emotional torrents in the gathered assembly – and a decade or two later, in response and en route to something more respectable, many hours of worship were filled by a rec0gnized minister filling most of the time with his own message. (Or, possibly, her.) As Douglas Gwyn remarks in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience: “These ministers then proceeded to speak almost the length of the meeting …” Even the controversial Elias Hicks, in the early 1800s, could be counted on to deliver vocal ministry lasting 20 to 30 minutes, a detail that would shock many today who insist, as many of the Hicksites would, that a vocal message be brief and pithy.

And so I was startled to hear Douglas Gwyn note another possibility for our traditional silence or open worship:

On another level, it is also intriguing to speculate whether the Quaker movement represented a resurgence of the old Celtic Christian tradition in the North. Celtic Christian emphases upon the indwelling of Christ, the inclusion of all creation in God’s redemptive work, the spiritual authority of women, and the cross as real personal triumph through suffering – all these themes found conspicuous expression in the Quaker movement. Although they were filtered through the thought-forms of Reformation, they still constituted a strong counterpoint to the dominant Puritan message. … in the backwater of the English Reformation, this very old, isolated stream of Western Christianity would have continued as an undercurrent in the faith of country folk. … As he [George Fox] moved westward into Westmorland, Cumberland, and northern Lancashire, where the movement exploded in 1652, he entered the largest area of vestigial Celtic tradition in England.

Hints of the dimensions of the earlier Celtic Christianity can be found in Thomas Cahill’s epic 1995 How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, where he follows a strand of Christianity that was suppressed after the historic confrontations with Roman authorities in the late 600s on the English holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Quite simply, Roman Catholicism might have taken a much different direction than it has.

Did Celtic Christianity include meditative practices like those we find in yoga or Zen Buddhism? We can only speculate.

Still, as Gwyn remarks of the early Quaker movement nearly a millennium after the Lindisfarne controversies, it was while traveling through Cumberland that John

Burnyeat observes that they still did not know “true striving,” which is “out of self,” “standing still out of our own thoughts, willings, and runnings.” But other Quaker ministers came through the area and guided them “in what to wait, and how to stand still.” Evidently, there was some degree of technique to early Quaker spirituality, or at least some kind of guidance that helped refocus spiritual energies from ego-centered striving to true surrender. Slowly, “a hope began to appear in us, and we met together often, and waited to see the Salvation of God.”

That degree of technique may still be needed for many who come to Friends meetings, not knowing how to center into the silence, especially in today’s media-saturated overload.

Were these Quaker ministers thus reviving something that was already in the peoples’ bones? It makes for some interesting speculation.  The fact is that in today’s society, many of us need some help learning to sit still and enter a holy silence.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. Feel free to take a look.

PSALM OF PSALMS

1

the tension
of the harp
and bow-string

in the poet-king’s hand

taking flight
in the air

*   *   *

how many Psalms
expressed the same anguish
and trial

in the glorious regime

*   *   *

how brief the interludes
between exile

2

the Psalms are poems
or the Psalms are prayers

as if I could define either

*   *   *

prayer is not what I speak
but what my Deeper Self would utter
despite me

*   *   *

raise my shield, O Lord,
regardless of the outcome, and lift me

there’s nothing easy about love

3

New Zion

originally, Bible stories were chanted
rather than read and dissected in the rabbinical twist

hardened into bronze

even in daily devotion

in this quest of salvation
facing Jerusalem
tiring of the routine exile

where’s my power in this place?
my heart, ever so uneasy

*   *   *

patriots say Peace but mean Victory:
which is hardly the same outcome
or means

festering and darkening
drumbeats summoned
into crowds cheering
uniforms
or invoking the Holy One
the Prince of Peace
to their cause

*   *   *

even communion tokens
from Colonial-era steeplehouses
witness the contrast to our free-Gospel ministry

with their families, subscribing to box seats
squirming in this theater of pipes

so who exchanged coins
for their purity?

truly, how do you pay
with the psalter?

holy, holy, holy

in a constant delving for treasures
where others see nothing of value

from whom all blessings flow
over each stretch of turmoil

*   *   *

how many strands of history
and sojourn
converge on me
as I’m walking in prayer
and softly humming
a funeral hymn for comfort

some October night
shivery petals shall upend
a row of headstones, too

called to the cause of justice

4

counterpoint originates
in the descant over the cantus firmus

or maybe drumming
or the sound of feet dancing

or even droning under the chant

in the conflicted lines
of desire and pain

in the hideous bleeding wrists
and ankles

*   *   *

O Holy One
contrary to the ancient discipline
I country dance
and sing harmony

to once again crack the thick shell
I build around me

“in the gift of life is also the gift of time”

time, as a signature
for music
for the dance

O Holy One
bless the Singers’ Table
with its poets and musicians

free in the present
free in unity with the Holy Spirit
free in the disciplines we embrace

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set, click here.

TWAS EVER THUS

Just a taste of what’s popping up. In case you were looking for a prompt.

~*~

  1. The anticipation mounts when we espy our first asparagus shoots. At this point they express their kindred alignment with ferns, but we know how incredible the spears will be cut minutes before cooking. Forget what you buy in the stores or restaurants.
  2. “Twas ever thus,” as my Mr. Natural tee-shirt still proclaims.
  3. With a sticker covering part of the box, what I read was “Rock Pot, the Original Slow Cooker.” You know, like back in the Stone Age.
  4. It wasn’t in the plan when we decided to dine in Manchester, but I wound up leading a tour through the city’s West Side, plus the millyard and overlook of the Amoskeag falls and dam. “That was as satisfying as having a destination,” she proclaimed.
  5. Pondering the Holy Spirit as Shekinah. Why not a female as holy lover? The Kabbalist perceiving sparks (holy Light) everywhere! Consort of God as feminine action. As for Lillith? Ah, yes, what of her?
  6. Trying to translate from one era or culture to another presents a host of challenges. The term “kingdom of God,” for instance, can convey both patriarchy and monarchy at odds with contemporary American outlooks. I like the “commonwealth of God” instead, though there’s nothing common about it.
  7. How I’ve come to enjoy any stay-in-my-sweats day, one where I drive nowhere. Soon it may turn into slip into shorts and sandals, but the effect’s the same.
  8. How does that big city newspaper get the partygoers to look so good in its weekly charity events page?
  9. I hate “small talk” – or at least struggle with it in many social settings. Any suggestions?
  10. What do I crave? Lust for? (As for you?)

~*~

Virtually all of the rail traffic to and from Maine and the rest of the nation passes along these tracks in downtown Dover, along with the four Amrak runs to Boston and back each day.

Virtually all of the rail traffic to and from Maine and the rest of the nation passes along these tracks in downtown Dover, along with the four Amrak runs to Boston and back each day.

For my slideshow of Amtrak’s Downeaster in town, click here.

THE MOODIEST FEATURE

Initially, I regard the mountain as another slumber-induced fantasy. Its climax appears pristine, boundless, haughty, mesmerizing, even eerie. Over time I behold its hideousness and terror as well. Such beauty may suddenly turn fatal. Timberlands netted with trails and campsites, plus unfettered wildlife, extend from its ivory helix. These opportunities are my primary rationale for migrating to this corner of the nation. But these woodlands border desert, and none of my maps alert me to the consequences. Not even Georgia O’Keeffe’s brilliant renderings of New Mexico, artwork I long admired, hint at its harsh thirst. Rather, the paintings emerge as another kind of dream to be savored, confined to a gallery or oversized pages. Besides, my definition of desert would have required camels, or at least organ barrel cactus, neither of them found in the cheat grass and sagebrush foothills surrounding my new home and workplace.

A glacier-glad mountain resembles a foaming waterfall. It is, after all, an endlessly frozen cataract. Below it, in late spring or early summer, breastworks are laced with plummeting streams racing toward September irrigation in desert to the east. On the clearest days, Rainier’s ice sparkles; its beacon flashes sixty miles to the orchard where we dwelled. At sunset the inactive volcano’s shadow is a finger reaching toward the rising full moon. It points as well to places we’ve abandoned.

The predominant mountain is also the moodiest feature of the vista. Everything’s arrayed in reference to this pillar. To observe it over time is akin to regarding one’s beloved. Neither the zenith nor one’s honey is as immovable as one presumes. They are not the divinity. They’re more accurately repeated dreams, where some episodes fade out over the years while others intensify. Sleep visions of the soul, having one foot in the dreamer’s past and the other in the present, dance on water. Sometimes they drown. Even a mountain.

You should see the way Kokopelli makes it dance before sunrise.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

SEASONS OF THE ASHRAM

MY RESIDENCY IN a yoga ashram introduced its own sequence of seasons. I address these in my novel, Ashram, where different individuals embody different stages in the progression from soul-cleansing to community awareness and service to spiritual illumination. While I limit the plot to the activities of a single day, there’s no way to escape the histories that led each participate to this place or to the conflicts and achievements they’ve already shared in their adventures on the yoga farm.

The ashram allowed a kind of spiritual season I no longer see on American landscape – a place for youths, especially, to undergo intense reorientation and ego-stripping. More traditional monastic settings often point the practitioner in a different direction, something more resembling a career path.

In retrospect, the institution itself was evolving through its own series of seasons. Originating as a kind of laissez-faire hostel and spa before moving into a more rigorous retreat center and monastery and then into a Hindu temple and children’s camp, each season manifested itself quite differently from the others, held together by Swami’s autocratic vision, strengths, and weaknesses.

In season, too, many of my doubts and concerns also bore fruit. When I was ordered to return to the community and refused, only to be ostracized, I was being faithful to a larger Spirit. A different set of seasons was unfolding.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

TAURUS, TENDERLY

Why wait for the dust to settle? Here are 10 bullets from my end.

~*~

  1. Daffodils and rising scrolls of ferns are two of my favorite proclamations of spring. Last year a sharp drop in temperature cut the daffodils down just as they were starting to bloom. We were so disappointed. (The same snap also wiped out peaches across New England.) How quickly, too, can a vibrant patch go scraggly if you don’t divide the bulbs every few years. As for our ferns, I now feel vindicated for all the ones I transplanted in futile efforts that first decade before they took hold here.
  2. Likewise, hold true to a vision of progress, of a more just and loving society, a realm of selflessness over selfishness.
  3. Hard for me to believe I composed Village of Gargoyles while living in an apartment complex atop the highest hill in the biggest city in the state – before moving to the smaller city where I now reside – a place more befitting the village of these poems.
  4. Need to get new Tibetan prayer flags. The old ones are totally frayed.
  5. Has anyone else read Ned Rorem’s Paris Diary or its New York sequel? Saturated in the self-centeredness and self-indulgence of youth, they’re deliciously juicy and fun reading, though I could never be snide like that. Besides, if I did it here at the Barn, you wouldn’t know anyone in my circles. They’re not even celebrities, even of the minor sort. So much for the gossip on my end.
  6. While assembling the hammock, I heard a squirrel overhead scolding one of the neighborhood cats, likely the one we call Spooky. “Get it,” I urged the cat. Whereupon an empty Nutella jar landed on the table, barely missing me, its lid neatly chewed around. Something the squirrel had pilfered from what one of the kids had likely hidden in the barn sometime over the winter. I looked around but saw nobody to confirm was had just transpired. Trust me.
  7. My emotional wall just may be a shell, too.
  8. In my first moves, all my goods fit in my car.
  9. During the American Revolution, the village center that served as Rhode Island’s capital changed its name from King’s Town to Little Rest, with its delicious double meaning.
  10. Yearning for a renewed feeling of bliss – the holy ecstasy – something I wish she, too, would experience, however foreign it might seem now.

~*~

By my side at the moment. My coffee mug's on a shelf above it.

By my side at the moment. My coffee mug’s on a shelf above it.

ROLLING WITH WHALES

on the way out, a fifty-year-old shrimper from Louisiana –
originally from Gloucester, where he’s visiting his sister –
tells of the Gulf’s particular brutality

how crews typically go out twelve days
till the hull is full . his boat with three Rolls-Royce
engines so loud harborside residents complained
he hesitated to open full throttle
unless the water’s churning was especially rough

rocking at the jetty-mouth sandbar
like Canobie Lake’s pirate ship ride
three delighted school groups shriek

when we top twenty-one knots – his boat, twenty-three
yet his went down / couldn’t salvage any gear
lost two crewmen with him five years
he himself now limps
wounded in the knee by a barracuda,
and it’s not healing right . he hobbles along
with a cane, wondering if it’s time to quit
the shrimping in his blood
run an excursion boat instead

“and you, sir?”

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set of seacoast poems,
click here.

SUMMONS AND SORROW

On scattered reservations, a few elders rise before dawn each day and summon the sun to return. Don’t scoff. When I, too, get up in the dark and meditate, I feel my own self-confidence rising. Watch the world awaken. Light a wood fire, something I sit beside and watch for hours, its flames more imaginative than television. Bask in the radiant warmth.

Kokopelli, night owl that he is, still slumbers.

My wife, in another room, rolls toward the wall and finally rises to join me.

There’s a science, and then there’s an art. In the pyre, paper first chars, then shrinks, and finally explodes. Only then do flames engulf it. “Consider the bomb a ream would create,” I grin at her.

“Now who would you want to bomb, Buzzard?”

But I also know how difficult igniting that ream would be, and how difficult to keep it burning. Watch carefully and misconceptions turn to ash.

In the continuing drought of that fall and winter, I explore national forest well into February. Areas that should be buried in a half-dozen feet of snow are instead bare. Atop one mountain, I look over a cliff. “I think it’s dolomite.” Maybe it isn’t. Maybe the identification isn’t earth-shaking important, but learning the names of places and their minerals, fauna, and flora adds dimensions to a place. Improves your chances of survival, too, if put to the test. For now, I scramble on the scree and realize that white painted stones at the cliff’s edge marked out a heliport. Far below my feet, a table of forest spreads into basins that are invisible from my vantage, and other places I’ve already been. I trace Forest Service roads, such as they are — 1707 from Raganunda to the top or 601 down to Willy Dick’s. “Keep elk gate closed,” the sign reads when I came out, passing a few back country ranches to the highway’s rush and debris. Far above all that, I sing out: “God bless a bloody rib cage above gray fuzz. Perhaps we’ll have rain in the morning! We shouldn’t be kicking this dust.”

In a zero-degree fog, the sun rises as white as the moon.

“Let our liquid flow again despite this desiccation!” I cry in my dreams. “Why is it so difficult to recall the thoughts rainstorms instilled?”

“You put too much value on sorrow,” Kokopelli tells me. Even in my sleep, that old guide’s still at work.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.

YANKEE

1

don’t presume the ocean is smiling
or the gulls enchant
the spire warns you

especially in New England

to step
back from the wreckage
or unexpected nor’easter

2

gales and furies
sweep up and disappear within hours
behind placid indifference

raise public duty

expense and craftsmanship
defining coastline
signatures, on the dotted line
in the clearest conditions

3

pointer / referent / rhythm of light / solitude or
loneliness / romantic illusion / high-maintenance history
lightening bolt / flicker / flare / discharge
beer can or wine bottle uncorking or blowing its cork
tourist magnet / spike / whistle, horn, upturned bell
observatory / night madness / memorial / first end of the sea
fist of defiance / ordered rock on rocks / spiral staircase to sky
to the horizon / a hollow tube / a composition of lenses
slivers of glass / slivers of crystal / a glass circle carousel
a hermitage / pigeon roost / billboard / thumbtack
anchored ship’s bridge / silver cup tilting / upraised finger

4

Boon Island, flashing white every five seconds
projects nineteen miles out to sea

Goat, faintly to the north

to the south
White Island, out in the Shoals

and Whaleback, would be double white flashes every ten seconds
just over the trees

way off, Thacher Island Twin Lights
(aka Cape Ann Lights or Rockport, Mass.)
project seventeen, but viewed from up on rock

at Nubble, some extra distance
on a rare night

of calm
antiquity

joining the squat red beam
and strobe flash
each one
proclaiming liberty
over any face of oppression

the tyrant sea offers

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set of seacoast poems,
click here.

WITHIN AN ONGOING DYNAMIC OF FAITH

Over the years, my own spiritual practice has undergone many changes. In the essays and notes of my Seasons of the Spirit collection, I touch on struggles that led me to reject the mainstream Protestant teachings of my childhood as well as my leap into the monastic life on a yoga farm before I chanced into the Society of Friends, or Quakers, where I’ve remained for more than four decades.

I arrived as an ABC Quaker – “anything but Christ” – but many sections in this collection arise in a subsequent, evolving evangelical encounter and language, especially as my community of faith moved into the more historically active strands of Quakers in Ohio Yearly Meeting and then into Mennonite and Brethren extensions.

That tone and scope of thought moderate as I grow older, living and working an hour north of Boston.

A crucial influence through much of this volume reflects seasons of relationship – intimate companionship, family, and friends, as well as the workplace. Cycles, too, like those of progressing from childhood and parenthood into retirement or release.

Even in a tradition like the one I’ve embraced, seemingly free from an annual liturgical calendar or its outward emblems, cyclical changes mirroring those of the seasons do appear. Since much of this time has been spent within the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I’ll give one example from Salem Quarterly Meeting in Ohio, where the session each Fifth Month (that is, May) meant rhubarb in the applesauce. See it as sacrificial and special, a kind of unwritten liturgical calendar waiting to be observed through repetition.

In speaking of this awareness and growth as Seasons of the Spirit, we may also consider their interplay with the Seasons of the Flesh – and ultimately, their unity, contrary to Descartes and conventional teaching. From my perspective, perhaps with a Buddhist twist, we can proclaim an alternative:

I breathe, therefore, I am.

Spirit, after all, is the very core of the word inspiration —and at its heart of meaning. I’ll also focus on Spirit as the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of Christ — in contrast to other spirits, such as jealousy, anger, envy, and so on. Translate this as you wish.

Seasons of the Spirit

Seasons of the Spirit

Whatever the pathway, there are times of struggle, doubt, and distrust. Times of whirlwind passion and excitement. Times of discovery. Times of drought or deep winter, relying on what’s brought out of storage. Times of renewal and recharge.

This has manifested as periods where I’ve been able to dedicate significant time to meditation, solitude, travel in ministry, prayer, Bible study, research into history and theology, organizational service, teaching, correspondence, or writing, as well as to regular disciplines such as fasting or physical spiritual exercise (the hatha yoga sessions or even wilderness hiking). Emphatically, however, one would predominate while others would likely be absent or greatly diminished. In addition, they would be strongly impacted by the events of my daily life itself – whether I was single, married, divorced, or “in relationship,” my hours and nature of employment, my friendships and faith community, my driving patterns through the week.

The result of all of this would be a crazy-quilt tapestry or a ricochet trajectory if it weren’t for a spiraling within it. That is, over the years, various periods and interests begin to overlap one another, creating a kind of harmony or accumulated depth. My asparagus bed in New Hampshire has roots in my experience of asparagus along irrigation canal banks in Far West desert three decades earlier. A dog sitting through Quaker meeting here is a reminder of dogs sitting through predawn meditation sessions in the Pocono Mountains, or of the cats aligned on the scaffolding outside the windows, as if they, too, were deep in concentrated worship. I read a particular Psalm and see the passage taking twists I hadn’t perceived earlier.

In my own life, my childhood was filled with natural science, hiking, and camping, each with its mystical visions and moments. Adolescence led into politics, classical music, opera, and writing complicated by unrequited sexual yearning. Without romantic companionship, a Lone Ranger journey. Rejection of existing creed while ensconced in youth church office was followed by flight into atheism and hippie excess landing, inexplicably, in a yoga ashram with its hatha exercises and sustained meditation. From there, into liberal Quaker practice, where the ashram lessons were applied in circles of deepening prayer life. By steps, I moved toward Christocentric and Plain speech, and an especially faith fervent language. Among the traditional Wilburite Friends as well as Mennonites, especially, I came to wrestle within Scripture while simultaneously undergoing repeated Dark Night journeys and questioning. Turning to emotional therapy, I wondered if anyone could come along with me through all of this – my career moves, spiritual shifts, and geographic relocations. By now, too, I was no longer meditating to get high, or transcend, but rather to center down to what the early Quakers emphasized as the Seed. Here, too, with all of the Quaker committee work, I was engaged in a religion that combines mystical experience with social witness and activism. In a nutshell, then.

Each swirl also stirs up something from before. What failed in earlier marriage or relationships reappears. What has been left unfinished is not left entirely behind. What has been shredded remains to be woven. I’ve heard this opera in its entirety a hundred times. Have I ever heard this note before?

I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast and back before heading on to the Pacific Northwest in what seemed an epiphany but instead shattered amid volcanic eruption and devastation. I left the wilderness for another kind of wilderness, back across the Rust Belt of the Midwest and then on to the East Coast. The pendulum, as they say. Here, I now see life as both linear and circular – that is, spiraling. The spirit requires flesh, or is it that the flesh requires spirit? Seasons include times that are full or overflowing, and times that are barren or dry. I now welcome the questioning that is not hostile is both essential and healthy.

My first spring in the orchard, I expected all of the trees to blossom simultaneously. They don’t. The apricots and cherry petals give way to plums, pears, and peaches. The apple blooms arrive last, when others are already gone.

Experiencing a new place through a full year or repeated years provides a much different understanding than a tourist gets – even one who spends several months there. Relocating requires a year-and-a-half to gain familiarity with the new surroundings – to get beyond the obvious, to establish friendships, to be oriented with the elements one finds essential or special. A favorite restaurant, a woodland pathway or place to swim, a boutique or gallery.

There are seasons for a person of faith, from winter to spring elation and then into fullness, dryness, struggle, or disillusionment. To harvest, perchance. Marriage? Family? Children? Extended into joy, compassion, humility, appreciation – one begins observing and naming.

The turning point in my own journey came when I accepted a new name – Jnana – while living in the ashram. The rest of the developments followed.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.